Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tall tales: Maine storyteller heads away for audiences

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We here at the Phoenix don't pull this kind of thing often, but this weekend you're missing out. Lewiston native (and Munjoy Hill dweller) Michael Parent has headed 1000 miles southwest from Portland to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, this weekend.

He'll be telling up to eight hours of stories over the course of the weekend — not all at once, but in chunks ranging from 15-20 minutes up to a full hour. Sadly, Parent, a 64-year-old of French-Canadian descent, doesn't do a lot of performing around here. He's been in a few theatrical productions and has done some one-man storytelling shows around town — and is hoping to line up some appearances this fall — but most of his work he does elsewhere. "The further away you go, the more they pay you," he laughs wryly.
In Jonesborough, the International Storytelling Center hosts one of the country's largest annual festivals for storytellers; attendees number between 12,000 and 15,000, spread among several tents. Parent will regale his audiences with selections from his extensive repertoire.

He has one story retelling the fable of "Beauty and the Beast" from the Beast's point of view; another is a series of vignettes called "Heroes and Sheroes, Working Class and Otherwise," which includes one tale about a sanitation worker "who puts pizzazz in the collection of garbage," he says.

He tells folk and fairy tales, but many of his pieces are based in fact, though embellished for the telling. "I take events that actually happened and try to capture the spirit of the event, whether or not I have all the facts straight," Parent says.

A favorite of his is "The Beautiful Game," a story centered around the fire that destroyed Lewiston's St. Dominic's Arena in 1956, crushing the spirits of hockey players and fans alike in that economically troubled town. It's based on the facts of the event — including research into newspaper archives on microfiche — but his descriptions of residents' reactions are based on his own experience growing up in Lewiston as a player on one of Maine's five high-school hockey teams at the time.

Parent begins his stories by writing them, but before they are ready for delivery, he tries them out on friends, preferring to hone his work in the telling. "You'll come up with things on your feet that you'll never come up with sitting on your butt," he says.

And when honed, they're ready. "You have 1000 people in a tent, and as soon as a story starts, it's just dead silence," he marvels. "I think people are longing for that kind of connection with the spoken word." (He mixes guitar music in with his stories, and seeks audience participation from time to time — whether singing along or performing on stage with him: "I seem to have a gift for getting people to be a bit silly," he says.)

Parent has been performing as a storyteller since 1977. "I feel I'm really getting the hang of it, after 30-plus years," he says, only half-joking. His first Jonesborough performance was in 1981; "it isn't quite the career catapult that it once was," because there are so many more storytellers and so many more festivals. In fact, after Parent leaves Tennessee, he's heading to another storytelling festival in Washington. He swears he'll come back at some point soon — keep an eye out for him in our listings pages and around town in Portland or Brunswick.

Hear some of Michael Parent's work at

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Press releases: Could it happen here?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The news a few years back that the Bush administration had convinced the big telecom companies to allow the authorities to spy on customers without warrants, in the name of fighting terrorism, caused a ruckus. Americans tend to worry about protecting our privacy from the government or big Internet-based businesses. But what if it was newspapers doing the snooping, hacking into phone and e-mail records of celebrities and politicians, and then publishing what they discover?

In the United Kingdom, just this question has come up in light of revelations that a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, News of the World, had journalists hack into cell-phone voicemail messages of Prince William and Prince Harry and report on personal details revealed in them.

Two men went to jail in 2007 in connection with the scandal, but recent concerns have arisen that the hacking may have been much more widespread, targeting leading politicians, sports stars, and celebrities — as the New York Times put it in a recent story on the scandal, “anyone whose personal secrets could be tabloid fodder.”

(A Parliamentary investigation found that the News editor at the time, Andy Coulson, had not known the phone hacking was taking place, and definitely did not approve it. Coulson is now the chief spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, giving the new attention to this scandal a strong political bent.)

Britain’s culture of celebrity-crazed tabloids looks a lot like American pop-culture lunacy, and as US media outlets continue to compete for ever-shrinking shares of an ever-shrinking financial pie, desperation for audience attention is certain to increase.

Still, this level of invasiveness is one we can hope will not darken our shores. Mainstream news organizations tend to see themselves as above that sort of stunt. Even Murdoch’s empire in the US, primarily the Fox network, has so far been content with ambushing public figures on the street and asking them unpleasant questions. (The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, it must be said, seems particularly unlikely to stoop to UK-tabloid style activities.)

Celeb-focused publications and blogs haven’t debased themselves this much yet either, but they might, given the brazenness — and phenomenal popularity — of outlets like TMZ and

The question there, and here, boils down to free-press guarantees. Some people want to outlaw this type of behavior by journalists. But that gets into a slippery slope of the government exerting control over journalists. In the UK, which has a free-press tradition but no written constitution, that is easier than here, with our First Amendment enshrining media liberty.

Some have worried that such a law would have unintended consequences, though that is being debated too: Would new restrictions prevent true public-interest disclosures of very private information, as happened in 2009, when reporters investigating lawmakers’ expense accounts revealed that some members of Parliament watched pornographic pay-per-view movies on the public’s dime?

Under existing laws, UK celebs have, with the help of a cooperative judge (who was replaced last week amid this debate), been increasingly able to get injunctions preventing publication of private information, even if what they’re trying to protect is accurate. (Which brings up other concerns about press freedom.)

In the US, judges have traditionally been much more leery of granting those kinds of “prior restraint” injunctions, preferring to let story subjects seek redress in court after publication. In a shift that shook the American legal landscape, though, a federal appeals-court ruling last year held that a person can be libeled if private information, even if true, is published with “actual malice.”

When that case was reheard in a lower court, a jury reversed the ruling. But injunctions are decided by judges, not juries. It may be just a matter of time here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cybersecurity: Maine breaches

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When many Mainers think of "cybersecurity," they probably remember the 2008 HANNAFORD SECURITY BREACH, when 4.2 million credit- and debit-card numbers were stolen from shoppers at the grocery chain's stores.

What received little coverage amid the hype about the vastly overstated threat of identity theft (only 1800 accounts were actually used to make fraudulent charges — 0.04 percent of the stolen numbers) was that the breach was the first documented case of a new way of stealing this kind of information.

Previously, most security breaches resulting in theft of credit-card, bank-account, or even Social Security numbers had come from a single incident — either a physical theft of a computer or drive containing that information, or by connecting to a computer via the Internet and breaking through whatever security it might have in place. (This happened, for example, to THE UNIVERSITY OF MAINE HEALTHCARE CENTER'S COMPUTERS in June, when an unauthorized person accessed data on about 4600 students who had sought mental-health help at the university.)

But Hannaford's data was stolen over the course of several months, during transmission of the data from store cash registers to the system that the company used to verify card transactions. This process takes only seconds, as shoppers know, and became a target for thieves because protection had been beefed up on physical computers and their electronic defenses.

The fact that some credit-card information is not encrypted when traveling over private corporate networks remains an issue for retailers, banks, and credit-card companies to resolve. (When traveling over public networks, the data must be encrypted.) Also, the Hannaford hack was claimed by some to be an inside job — and there's little defense against data theft by a person who is allowed into a data center.

Most Mainers likely do not know that THE MAINE LEGISLATURE'S WEB SITE WAS HACKED just three months ago, resulting in some mild confusion about the lawmaking process. Specifically, the site's ability to designate the status of bills moving through the Legislature — including keeping users up-to-date on amendments and voting — was modified so that a user who clicked on various links would be taken to a Web site that would attempt to download viruses or other harmful software onto a user's computer.

State computer-support staff took the site offline entirely for several days while they fixed the security hole and reloaded correct information into the database. This went largely unnoticed because the Legislature was not in session at the time.

Dueling ideas: Maine's senators on cybersecurity

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Both of Maine's senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, have backed cybersecurity legislation in hopes of avoiding or averting the catastrophes described in David Scharfenberg's main piece. But their approaches have been different, leading to conflicting bills in the US Senate.

Collins's effort, also backed by senators Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Tom Carper (D-Delaware), is most controversial because it would give the federal government significant authority to monitor, or even shut down, the Internet or portions of it, if the president declared a cybersecurity emergency. (The fact that the Department of Homeland Security would be in charge of actually doing this doesn't exactly make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, either.)

But beyond that — and despite creating two more federal agencies (the Office of Cyberspace Policy and the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications) — the bill does make some sense, because it also addresses education and training of future cybersecurity professionals, even introducing some concepts as early as elementary school.

Snowe's plan, proposed jointly with Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), would not go quite so far. It would create a new office in the White House (the Office of the National Cybersecurity Advisor) and set new federal standards for cybersecurity, with which private companies and government agencies would have to comply. It would also provide for licensing and certification of cybersecurity professionals.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is reportedly working to combine the two bills and bring the merged proposal to a vote in the Senate sometime in September.

Corporate Albatross Dept.: FairPoint's struggles continue

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It has been a very long time since our last FairPoint update, but you can rest assured that the North Carolina-based landline provider's downward slide has continued, as the company attempts to restructure its way out of crushing debt through bankruptcy-court protection. Here are a few gems from the past few months.

First up, and most recently, on August 5, MAINE TAXPAYERS GAVE FAIRPOINT A $1.1 MILLION GIFT, when Maine Revenue Services agreed to accept just shy of $400,000 as payment "in full" of a $1.5 million tax bill the company owed the state.

But new math appears to be the way, as the COMPANY'S ACTUAL VALUE IS IN SERIOUS DOUBT. In its October 2009 bankruptcy filing, the company claimed its assets, as of June 2009, were $3.236 billion, with debts of $3.234 billion. An independent valuation of the company, however, set its total worth at between $1.8 billion and $2.1 billion. In another filing, FairPoint says its northern New England assets are worth $1.2 billion — far less than the $2.3 billion the company paid (including $1.7 billion in actual cash), to Verizon to take over landline service in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, a takeover that was delayed several times before finally becoming effective at the end of 2008.

Also, ITS BUSINESS MODEL IS FAILING. The bankruptcy filing is clear: "FairPoint has been unable to attain the performance levels it projected at the time of the acquisition" of Verizon's northern New England business. In 2008, 8.5 percent of customers who had been with FairPoint before the merger cut their landlines. That's pretty bad, but customers who joined FairPoint in the Verizon switch left even more quickly: 12.3 percent of them bailed in 2008 alone, according to court documents. That's a big increase from the 7.3 percent subscriber loss Verizon experienced in 2007, which FairPoint's plan had projected it would beat (meaning lower losses, not higher).

The COMPANY HAS TROUBLE FORESEEING THE FUTURE in other ways, too. Beyond FairPoint's bizarre pre-merger projections, Vermont's Public Service Board (its equivalent of Maine's Public Utilities Commission) ruled in late June that "FairPoint has provided virtually no explanation" for its service-quality promises, saying that "based upon the record before us, we cannot find that FairPoint has demonstrated the financial capability to meet its obligations under Vermont law and its (state license) as a telecommunications carrier."

For that matter, FAIRPOINT HAS PROBLEMS VIEWING THE PAST ACCURATELY. In February, the company announced that it had overstated 2009 revenue by 3 percent, or $26 million.

The COMPANY HAS LEVERAGED ITS BANKRUPTCY TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF STATE REGULATORS in Maine and New Hampshire, getting permission to delay paying millions in poor-service-quality penalties, and even the potential for them to be waived altogether, if service improves. FairPoint also was given extra time in those two states to roll out its outdated version of broadband Internet access to rural customers. Vermont regulators have so far held firm, but FairPoint is asking them to reconsider, and if that fails the company is expected to ask a federal judge to overrule the state officials.

This is particularly ironic in Maine, because FAIRPOINT HAS SPENT MONEY TO LOBBY AGAINST A HIGH-CAPACITY BROADBAND NETWORK to be built with state, federal, and private funds. The company has argued that such an effort would unfairly compete with the slower-speed and later-arriving service FairPoint promises it will one day get around to providing. But federal funds aren't the real issue: having failed to receive any of the $38 million in economic stimulus money it applied for a year ago, the company has nevertheless applied again, this time seeking $20 million in federal funds to build out its network.

In the past five months, two TOP EXECUTIVES HAVE LEFT, AND ARE BEING REPLACED WITH EXECUTIVES WITH PRIOR CORPORATE BANKRUPTCIES ON THEIR RESUMES. Alfred Giammarino, who became FairPoint's chief financial officer in September 2008, resigned March 31 for what were called "personal reasons." He was replaced July 18 with Ajay Sabherwal, who was CFO for Choice One Communications leading up to, during, and after that company's 2004 bankruptcy restructuring. And David Hauser, appointed CEO in June 2009, was asked to resign by the company's major creditors and did so in mid-August. He has been replaced with Paul Sunu, who was CFO of Hawaiian Telecom when that company, another former Verizon landline property, entered bankruptcy protection in 2008.

And then, if all that wasn't enough, FAIRPOINT HAS ARGUED THAT IT SHOULD FACELESS SCRUTINY FROM STATE AND FEDERAL REGULATORS after it emerges from bankruptcy. Specifically, the company told Vermont regulators that their oversight puts the company at a competitive disadvantage when offering Internet and television services that are not regulated by the state, in combined packages with landline service, which is regulated.

In making this argument, FAIRPOINT HAS FORGOTTEN THAT IT PROMISED THE PUBLIC MORE AND FASTER INTERNET ACCESS as a key element in its argument that its takeover of Verizon would benefit the public. Now that it has sought — and received — permission from state regulators to delay and renege on those promises, the public benefit is reduced. No wonder FairPoint wants less regulation.